The ‘flailing state’ revisited: States and city govts handled Covid pandemic better than Centre

Learning by doing builds the needed human and organisational capital at the local level, where it has not been allowed to develop.

The Covid-19 crisis in India has refocused attention on the quality of the nation’s governance. Over a dozen years ago, economist Lant Pritchett coined the term “flailing state” for India. To quote his definition, “I argue that India is today a flailing state—a nation-state in which the head, that is the elite institutions at the national (and in some states) level remain sound and functional but that this head is no longer reliably connected via nerves and sinews to its own limbs.” What did he mean by this biological metaphor?

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To continue in his words, “In many parts of India in many sectors, the everyday actions of the field level agents of the state—policemen, engineers, teachers, health workers—are increasingly beyond the control of the administration at the national or state level.” Indeed, Pritchett’s foremost example was of India’s health system, where he argued that elaborate official accounts of the country’s health system were, especially in the poorer states of the North, a “complete fiction.” In quantifying some of the aspects of a flailing state, Pritchett also used examples from healthcare, such as falling immunisation coverage and slow reductions in infant mortality, benchmarking India against its neighbours.

The key distinction of a flailing state from one that is failing is that there is considerable competence at the top, based on what Pritchett called “administrative modernism,” but this does not translate into proper delivery of public services, for a variety of reasons, including corruption, inadequate human and organisational capital, lack of accountability, and so on. All of this is true of India, although one can argue over the precise causes and solutions. What is striking about the course of the pandemic, however, is that the flailing did not seem to have much to do with this picture of everyday India. If anything, there was a reversal of the usual story. State and city governments made heroic efforts to manage the pandemic, instituting whatever they could manage in terms of contact tracing, local lockdowns, testing and so on.

Instead, it was the national government that seemed to be flailing, imposing a national lockdown without adequate preparation in the pandemic’s early days, and then, in recent months, completely abandoning precautionary measures such as limiting large gatherings. In many cases, centralized decisions were made and imposed without regard for local conditions. At the same time, areas in which a national strategy was vital, such as vaccine production, and stockpiling of medical equipment and supplies, seem not to have been attended to adequately.

In this case, what happened to the administrative competence at the top of India’s pyramid of governance? Arguably, technical expertise may have been pushed aside by political calculations, especially given the economic and potential political cost of the initial lockdown. Even in an advanced country like the United States, one continues to see scientific and other experts being subordinated to those making political calculations. Until January 2021, this was happening at the national level, and it is still occurring in many states and localities run by members of the Republican party, who continue to dismiss mask wearing and vaccination.

The situation in India has not been as pernicious, since there hasn’t been opposition to such safety measures, merely, wishful thinking that the pandemic had run its course, with plausible stories of prior immunity build-up based on previous exposure to other pathogens. What seems to have completely escaped the collection of talent at the top was that another wave of infections, which could easily be observed in advance in other countries, would overwhelm the health system and impose much higher human and economic costs than the cost of precautionary measures.

Those measures would have been ramping up production or imports of PPEs and oxygen, higher domestic vaccine production and vaccination rates, and continued messaging to the population to wear masks and socially distance. All this could have been done, even in the face of political drivers that allowed massive rallies and religious gatherings.

To recap, much of the pandemic response makes one more optimistic—the “flailing state” did not do too badly in a crisis, even if it struggles more in more normal circumstances. The lesson may be that lower level government organisations need to be given more responsibility, and the funds to carry out those tasks, so they can learn by doing in situations where citizens can hold them more directly accountable than is possible for a distant national government. Learning by doing builds the needed human and organisational capital at the local level, where it has not been allowed to develop.

In the crisis, the elite institutions that are Pritchett’s metaphorical “head” did not meet expectations, perhaps because the administrators, like the politicians, are also too distant from the citizens they serve, or they became too insular in their thinking. In fact, the head and limbs metaphor may foreclose the ability to imagine a real solution to the “flailing state”—more effective decentralisation, especially to local governments, where implementation ultimately has to take place, for many public services. India has over a billion heads, each with a brain, and not just one.

Professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz

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